Spiral Path Farm, Pennsylvania


Know Your Farmer: Spiral Path Farm, Pennsylvnaia

Mike Brownback grows organic produce on 300 acres near Harrisburg, PA with his wife Terra and sons Lucas and Will at Spiral Path Farm, relying on trusted soil building techniques for over 30 years. He is passionate about not allowing hydroponic fruits and vegetables to use the USDA Organic label and is shocked that our government has enabled the United States to become the hydroponic “dumping ground for the world.” Although many hydroponic vegetables are grown in Europe, Mexico, and Canada, they are forbidden to be labeled organic in the countries where they’re grown!

Mike has spoken in front of the National Organic Standards Board twice in his career; once, at the beginning, to voice his opinion against allowing irradiation and GMOs in USDA organic. After winning that fight, he returned to the farm assuming everything was going well. After finding out that hydroponic production was being labeled organic, Mike returned to testify in front of the NOSB in November of 2017. Here, Mike spoke to NOSB members of the enormous benefits of carbon sequestration in soil and how that simply doesn’t occur in hydroponic containers. The definition of organic, by law, is shamefully overlooked for the sake of pure greed. Read the full transcript below.

Never Miss a Video from the Real Organic Project!

Mike, Terra, Lucas, and Will Brownback, Spiral Path Farm, Pennsylvania

Mike Brownback:
We moved up here to Perry County in 1978. When we started, the first person that came to see me was a fertilizer salesman. The next thing I know, I found myself farming conventional.

View of Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania

View of Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania, where Mike Brownback and family have steadily increased organic matter and soil fertility since 1977.

We always had our garden as organic – it wasn’t certified, but was always organic. One evening, I was taking a walk. I stripped an ear of corn and I peeled it down. It was an ear of corn I was growing for my pigs.

I bit into the corn and I got to thinking, you know, I sprayed this corn with herbicides (I wouldn’t use pesticides even back then). I thought you know this is kind of hypocritical.

Here I am spraying corn to grow feed, or something else that I sell, but for my own family I’m using organic.

It was really my midlife crisis. And I had to come to terms with what was in my heart, what I knew was right – and that was not using any “weapons of mass destruction” on my crops.

Organic integrity was something that I think was deep-rooted in me.

Growing Vegetables And Building Soil Since 1977

I’m Mike Brownback and we’re here at sunny Spiral Path Farm. After two weeks of rain, we’re happy for the sun to be out.

My wife Terra and I founded Spiral Path Farm in 1977. Today we’re farming 300 acres, along with our two sons, Will and Lucas, and also Deirdre and the children.

We have three generations on the farm and we’re really proud of that.

Spiral Path Farm is certified organic; we’ve been certified organic since the mid 90s.

We have a vegetable operation and we market pretty much A to Z. We do asparagus to zucchini and a whole lot in between – anything that’ll grow in our climate.

long rows of field grown kale at sunset on Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania

Long rows of field grown kale at sunset on Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania. Excess sugars produced by soil-grown plants are stored in the soil as carbon.

We’re fortunate that we have a very large CSA here in the greater Harrisburg area. And we also direct market to Wegmans supermarket chain.

Great Tasting Food Comes From Very Healthy Soils

As you can see, we have a hilly farm operation. It is mandatory that we have soil stewardship and conservation practices – all our fields are cover cropped.

We use cover crops to create biomass. We use compost on top of our cover crops and we really strive to build healthy soil.

We want healthy soil because we intend to build the most nutrition we possibly can into food and improve the flavor profile. Great tasting food comes from very healthy soils.

Put Your Resources And Trust Into Building Soil

All our compost is farm-derived. We actually have a lot of fallow fields – I don’t know if you can see in the background, but we have fields that we’re not farming.

We actually harvest those fields once a year as a hay chop that we use as the main ingredient for our compost.

View of hayfields at Spiral Path Farm

Hilly hayfields surround Spiral Path Farm. Hay is grown and harvested as the main ingredient for the farm’s compost operation which along with cover cropping serves as their on-farm fertility. Plants fed with slow-release nutrients like compost and cover crops build nutrients into their fruits that are passed along to eaters. Hydroponic growers rely on quick-release liquid nutrients such as hydrolyzed soy protein and fish fertilizer that are not sustainable. Fish fertilizer, for example, is not a byproduct of the fishing industry as many believe, but rather is contributing to the problem of overfishing our seas.

We also use our packing house waste, so our compost has no animal manure from off-farm inputs; we use what we have on the farm.

My advice to young growers is: “Put your resources into building your soil and trust that system.”

Time-Tested Methods Vs. Easy Money

The organic scene has changed some over the years. Really, back in the early days, it was easy to overwhelm the market if you had good crops.

Now that the market opportunities have increased, so have the players – now there’s a lot of players out there.

We find that there are many, many organic stewards that are really into it for the improvement of the soil. But there are also some players out there that are really looking for the money and the easiest way to grow their crops.

Mike Brownback grows tomatoes in soil at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania

Mike Brownback grows tomatoes in soil at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania. Tomatoes are one crop that is increasingly grown hydroponically, including in containers filled with soil-substitutes such as coir from coconut husks. The barrier between plant roots and soil prevents excess carbon from being stored in the earth and prevents the soil from developing the necessary water-retaining qualities that help to prevent drought and run-off.

We prefer the method that is time-tested: trusting building the soil, getting the nutrition into the soil, and getting the nutrition into the crop through building soil.

Certified organic started without the USDA. It was all private certifiers, some state certifiers and with the Organic Food Production Act it became mandatory that all organic certifiers were accredited by the USDA.

It’s up to us as eaters of good food to make sure that our government is following the letter of the law.

Family Farmers Unite to Reclaim Organic Farming

Family Farmers Unite to Reclaim Organic Farming. Note the message on Eliot Coleman’s t-shirt (far right) that reads “Protect Organic from the OTA” (Organic Trade Association).

Organic farmers across the US began speaking out against the organic certification of hydroponic produce in 2015. Other concerns included the weakening of organic livestock regulations and reports of fraudulent “organic” grain imports. Organic farmers testified at the National Organic Standards Board Meeting (NOSB) in Jacksonville, Florida in the fall of 2017. They were stunned by the overwhelming passion and support for their words and the board’s decision to turn a deaf ear and move forward regardless.

Read: Hooked on Hydroponics, Dave Chapman on the Shallowing of Organics by Dan Bensonoff

Mike Speaks Out Against Allowing Hydroponics To Use The USDA Organic Label

Mike Brownback, speaking to the NOSB in November 2017: “This is my second time commenting to the NOSB. The first time was at the proposed rule back when it was the big three, you know, the sludge the irradiation and the GMOs.

And we’ve come a long way from then and congratulations everybody.

But I’ll tell you one thing, back then, one of the rationalizations was that we were going to have
reciprocity internationally. And that IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) accreditation was going to be something that we’d all have.

And I don’t understand why the United States is the dumping ground of the world for hydroponics.

What’s going on here? This is something that’s very confusing to me.

The Brownback family of Pennsylvania's Spiral Path Farm in 1977 and today

Mike and Terra Brownback today and the family playing ball way back when.

As far as following plans for soil improvement, we’ve taken a farm that was run down that we purchased in 1977 with 1.7 percent organic matter. It’s now, well over 5%.

You know, raising organic matter, that is carbon sequestration.

I only have a ninth grade education as far as my biology goes, but basically, the simple sugars that come from photosynthesis, they go into the soil, the excess.

How can they go into the soil if it’s protected by a layer of a container, of a raised bed or whatever term we want to use?

I don’t get it. I’m somewhat confused. Where is our integrity?

What do we have for anatomy as a people if we’re willing to turn a blind eye to the facts of life?

We’ve had many people here eloquently state what is true and what is simple, what a child can understand.

What do we need to do?

I don’t see anybody in this room who is opposed to hydroponics that’s going away.

(Turning to address the organic farmers seated behind him) Are any you guys going away? I don’t think so. We’re here for the long haul.”

Watch more Know Your Farmer Videos